On Publishing’s End

Eoin Purcell

The End
Following a fairly decent survey article in New York Magazine (written by Boris Kachka) there has been considerable navel gazing and echoes of, “It’s all over, publishing is doomed!” Like this one from Wired:

Fifteen years ago, Philip Roth guessed there were at most 120,000 serious American readers—those who read every night—and that the number was dropping by half every decade. Others vehemently disagree. But who really knows? Focused consumer research is almost nonexistent in publishing. (((And getting some of that won’t help.)))

When you read some of the passages from Kachka’s article you can understand why this might be the reaction:

Lately, the whole, hoary concept of paying writers advances against royalties has come under question. Following their down payments to authors, publishers don’t have to pay a cent in royalties, which are usually 15 percent of the hardcover price, 7.5 for paperbacks, until that signing bonus is earned back. The system is supposed to be mutually beneficial; the publishers guarantee writers a certain income, and then both parties share in the proceeds beyond that level. But it only works for publishers if they’re conservative in their expectations. As auctions over hot books have grown more frequent, prudence has gone out the window— paying a $1 million advance to a 26-year-old first-time novelist becomes a public-relations gambit as much as an investment in that writer’s future.

That money has to come from somewhere, so publishers have cracked down on their non-star writers. The advances you don’t hear about have been dropping precipitously. For every Pretty Young Debut Novelist who snags that seven-figure prize, ten solid literary novelists have seen advances slashed for their third books.

Or how about:

One key advantage of corporate publishing was supposed to be its marketing muscle: You may not publish exactly the books you’d like to, but the ones you publish will get the attention they deserve. Yet in recent years, more accurate internal sales numbers have confirmed what publishers long suspected: Traditional marketing is useless.

“Media doesn’t matter, reviews don’t matter, blurbs don’t matter,” says one powerful agent. Nobody knows where the readers are, or how to connect with them. Fifteen years ago, Philip Roth guessed there were at most 120,000 serious American readers—those who read every night—and that the number was dropping by half every decade. Others vehemently disagree. But who really knows? Focused consumer research is almost nonexistent in publishing. What readers want—and whether it’s better to cater to their desires or try harder to shape them—remains a hotly contested issue. You don’t have to look further than the pages of The New York Times Book Review or the shelves of Borders to see that the market for fiction is shrinking. Even formerly reliable schlock like TV-celebrity memoirs doesn’t do so well anymore. And “the next thing,” as Publishers Weekly editor Sara Nelson notes drily, “is not bloggers writing books.”

Wise words too
More constructively some have offered their own suggestions as to why publishing isn’t working. Like this rather precise piece by Cory Doctrow on BoingBoing hits a rather too often forgotten nail on the head:

Historically, these outlets have sold more books than bookstores, and were a vital induction system that coaxed people who didn’t (yet) love books into the bookstores. When these chains went national, they demanded national distributors to stock them from coast-to-coast. The result: a huge shift in the way these shelves are stocked: once stocked by local distributors who chose from a very wide range of titles and hand-picked the right books for each little grocery store and pharmacy, now they are supplied by a national database totalling somewhere around 100 titles. The consolidated distributors demand gigantic discounts from publishers — and even so, they go bankrupt with dismal regularity, often with FBI arrests of top execs for corruption.

And, my new favourite read, the 26thStory blog that is introducing HarperStudio to the world by blogging, had a wonderful post pointing readers to a Slate article by Franklin Foer that is superior to Kachka’s in at least one vital respect (it’s 10 years older):

But it seems a shame that Kachka didn’t look at what has changed from 1997 to 2008 instead of repeating the same old themes.

For instance, in 1997, the top bestsellers often sold hundreds of thousands of copies, but in 2008, the biggest books have sold in the millions. The short end of the tail has moved higher up the graph. Meanwhile, online bookselling has bolstered the long end of the tail, creating easy access to thousands of backlist titles that might not earn their spot on a physical shelf. These two differences offer significant good news for authors and publishers with top-selling titles such as The Shack, or The Last Lecture, or Eat, Pray, Love, and also for publishers with extensive backlists.

It’s a pretty interesting debate but I reckon it misses a fairly obvious reality that “publishing” is as vibrant as ever in many new and old modes. Commercial publishing or maybe commercial print publishing might be facing problems (and I remain somewhat unconvinced by that but I’ll think on it some) but publishing itself is mutating rapidly into something else. Digital media is growing and alongside it digital authorship. There are even some signs that commercial digital publishing has a future.

One way or the other I’m not sure this debate means much. maybe I’m wrong!

Amazingly not depressed by it all anyway,

5 thoughts on “On Publishing’s End

  1. Interesting, thanks for posting about this.
    I’ve been reading a lot of gloomy-doomy articles on publishing lately, but really I think we can weather change, and change is needed. Some of the news (anything from the Kindle to the 26th floor publishers and more) is exciting really; there’s good with all that bad.
    I liked your sign-off–I’m with you there.

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